Mezzo-soprano Megan Gillespie was a student at the Castleton Festival’s residency program a mere five days when she had an absolutely phenomenal experience — a full-hour private training session with internationally acclaimed mezzo Denyce Graves.
“I already have learned so much,” rhapsodized Gillespie, 26, a Los Angeles resident who lived for almost a decade in Reston.
Selected after a rigorous audition process from more than 400 applicants, Gillespie is one of 49 young professional singers and students in the 2012 Castleton Artists Training Seminars.
“When I got here, they told me they scheduled the session, and I thought ‘how very cool,’” recalled Gillespie, a striking five-foot-eight-inch-tall redhead, who both performs and teaches voice.
Working together on a Rossini aria, Graves, a Washington, D.C., native, advised the up-and-comer not only on vocal technique but also shared practical career and health advice.
“She was so very inspiring, such a force,” Gillespie said.
Counseled by Graves that she was more than ready to audition for opera house management, Gillespie, who has a master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music, enthused, “When you hear that from Denyce Graves, how can you not do it. … In five days, all of a sudden, I feel new career paths in front of me.”
In its fourth season, the Castleton Festival, founded and primarily funded by world-renowned Maestro Lorin Maazel and his wife, famed German actress Deitlinde Turban, brings together experienced professionals with approximately 200 advanced young musicians and other performance artists.
Most in their 20s, members of the residency programs, like Gillespie, live, learn and perform at Maazel’s sylvan, 600-acre working livestock farm in Rappahannock County — home also to an unusually mellow zebra and a “zonkey” — from June through the end of July.
During this time of year, if you walk by one of the farm’s outbuildings retrofitted for rehearsals, you are most likely to hear beautiful music.
Most summer performances at the farm are held in Castleton’s Festival Theatre — a large, well-lit and air-conditioned permanent tent-like structure set in a meadow, which boasts a full-size state-of-the-art stage and orchestra pit.
More intimate performances take place in the 140-seat Theatre House, whose adjoining Great Room offers fine dining before and after performances by reservation. Constructed from a mixture of cedar and cherry woods and stone, it sits on the foundation of a coop that once housed 15,000 chickens.
Music in the country
“Tomorrow’s stars,” as Maazel describes them, Castleton’s young singers, conductors, instrumentalists, music directors, set and costume designers and technicians are presenting an ambitious season of opera and concert performances Friday through July 22 at Castleton as well as George Mason University’s Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas.
The Festival in Rappahannock opens Friday with “An Italian Extravaganza” concert and gala, featuring Maazel conducting the Castleton Festival Orchestra, and Graves, as special guest soloist, performing selections from Puccini, Verdi, Rossini and Respighi.
The Castleton Festival Orchestra also will play two other concerts: premieres of Mahler’s “Symphony No. 1,” paired with a new “Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra” by the Washington, D.C.-based composer Máximo Flügelman (Sunday), and Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9” and the “Leonore Overture No. 3” (July 7), conducted by Rafael Payare of Venezuela, the winner of the Malko Competition for Young Conductors.
Among Castleton’s new opera productions are Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” (Saturday and June 29, July 1) and Bizet’s “Carmen” (June 30, July 6 and 8), both conducted by Maazel in Castleton’s Festival Theatre.
And as its first venture into musical theater, Castleton is presenting a production of Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” (July 14, 15 and 16). Especially created for the CATS program, its members, accompanied by the Castleton Festival Orchestra, play all roles and sing in the supporting choruses.
Gillespie, for example, has been cast as the sexy maid Petra, who sings the lusty tribute to living life to the fullest in “The Miller’s Son.”
Other programs include: award-winning violinist Jennifer Koh (July 21) performing a solo all-Bach recital, and the Festival’s fourth annual Family Day (July 3), featuring tours of the farm and an open house with a 7 p.m. concert starring homegrown bluegrass legends Seldom Scene, followed by a fireworks display.
Growing CATSThe addition of “A Little Night Music” to the Festival’s repertoire is part of Castleton’s focus this year on its CATS program, according to Nancy Gustafson, 55, the festival’s general manager, head of CATS and an operatic soprano who sang in the world’s major opera houses for three decades.
“I’m everything,” Gustafson, a totally down-to-earth diva, noted with a laugh, explaining that she also drives one of the vans that at 6 a.m. pick up Castleton’s young resident artists, who range in age this season from 16 to 37. Because dorm space is limited at the farm, many live in nearby motels and private homes during their residencies.
“I’m a colleague, mentor, coach, and in some ways their mother. I’ve been there, done that. I know exactly how they’re feeling. Our whole team feels that way.”
However, stars, future or otherwise, do not simply happen — no matter how much raw talent they have. Everything from mastering musical technique and multiple languages to acting and movement to the business of getting hired and managing a career come under Castleton’s training purview.
In addition to master classes and special private sessions taught by distinguished visitors like Graves, CATS’ expanded 2012 focus has included upping its teaching and coaching team to 11.
“All fabulous artists in their own right as well as fabulous teachers,” among CATS mentors, Gustafson noted, are internationally acclaimed opera singers. They include tenor Standford Olsen; soprano Rosa Vento, who also is a professor of voice at New York University; mezzo-soprano Suzanne Mentzer; and baritone Richard Stillwell, a McLean resident.
Also working with CATS members are operatic voice teacher and renowned recitalist Marlene Kleinman Malas and Nashville recording artist, pianist and voice and performance coach Ron Browning.
In addition, CATS students this season will receive more “real-world” guidance from 50-year opera company veteran Brian Dickie, who retires in August after an 11-year tenure as general director of the Chicago Opera Theater.
And always there providing their own world-class guidance are Maazel, who evaluated every audition, sometimes online, no matter where he was in the world, and Turban, 54, who, besides also acting as a mother hen, hones students’ acting and German skills.
Maazel, 82, who, according to Gustafson “falls in love every year with the CATS chorus,” is invigorated by working with Castleton’s talented young musicians. She recalled the maestro’s recent return from China just as this year’s student artists were arriving. “Instead of saying ‘I’m tired,’ he reflected, ‘We really are lucky to be able to do this with young people.’”
It’s what both Gustafson and Gillespie call the “Castleton spirit.”
The first thing Gustafson asks each CATS member is to define his or her specific goals for the experience.
Asked again, Gillespie thought for a moment and responded, “That’s a tough question. … For me, it’s to be a sponge and to have all this learning come upon me.”
Besides launching numerous careers, Castleton’s residency program, Gustafson happily announced, also has sparked at least two marriages.
Watching the interaction between Castleton’s gifted young artists and their distinguished mentors is a continuing thrill, said Gustafson, who also describes herself as “one of the luckiest people in the world to be doing this.
“I can’t tell you how many times a day I get goose bumps,” she said.
Castleton at Hylton Center
The Castleton Festival also brings two programs to Merchant Hall at the Hylton Performing Arts Center: “Gershwin and Company, An All-American Evening” (June 28), featuring pianist Kevin Cole, one of the country’s premier Gershwin piano interpreters; and “Grand Opera in Concert: Puccini’s La Bohème” (July 7).
In it second year, this collaboration, said Hylton’s Executive Director Rick Davis, is a natural. “Hylton is a place of cultural ambition and aspiration and so is Castleton,” he suggested.
Excited by this year’s programs, Davis, 54, who formerly was artistic director of GMU’s professional Theater of the First Amendment in Fairfax, said: “Lorin Maazel is the best there is, and the people he attracts also are at the top of their games. If you ever watched him rehearse, there is this incredible electric energy. The players play with joy and engagement. It’s almost like watching theater.”
The concert version of “La Boheme” will “offer veteran opera-goers, like me, a new way into the work,” he said. For those new to opera, it will be “a great, more pure way to be introduced to the form.”
Gustafson, he noted, will give a mini-class on “La Boheme” to the Life-Long Learning Institute in Manassas on June 28 before the Hylton concert.
When Hylton’s Gershwin program was initially planned with Gustafson, Broadway’s two Tony-award-winning Gershwin musicals, “Porgy and Bess” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” were not yet in the picture. “When you’re hot, you’re hot,” Davis suggested with a laugh.
“I’m excited,” he added, to hear what Maazel will do with “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Commenting on his own contributions to Castleton, Maazel, in the 2012 season brochure, promised simply, “I shall be there all the time doing my thing ... mentoring, conducting, smiling.”